Last Things: May 2022
He doesn’t join things like hobby groups, Timothy Jones wrote me. “Pipe smoking, for instance. The few times I have met in such groups, it was like, ‘Well, here we all are, pipe smokers, smoking pipes together. Isn’t this nice?’ And it was just awkward.”
I avoid them too. Groups based on a shared but superficial characteristic — or on a self-image based on that characteristic — are almost always awkward, and don’t last long. Men keep trying to create them, though. Men find making friends hard when they get older. Other guys have their lives set, have their families, jobs, and churches, which get most of their time, and clubs and friends who get what time they have left.
Some must think that smoking pipes is the kind of relation around which men gather and become friends. Like Timothy, I don’t think it is. They’d be better off joining a group of guys doing something or making something or learning something, so the friendship would develop naturally in the course of working together for a common end. If they were complete pipe geeks, for example, friendship might grow from their absorption in the history, the cultural place, and the making of pipes, and their shared desire to evangelize for pipe-smoking.
Friendship, like all the best things in life, can’t be found by trying to create it.
Following links from one interesting thing to another, I came to read the part of the Mishnah called Moed Katan. The Mishnah is the first authoritative collection of the oral teaching of the rabbis, dating from the second century. It is sometimes called Judaism’s primary book of legal theory, and one that describes the life of sanctification.
The Mishnah offers a great lesson in charity. People would bring a bereaved family their first meal after the burial of their loved one. The rich brought the meal in silver and gold baskets, the poor in baskets made of peeled willow branches. “The poor were embarrassed,” the Mishnah says, “as everyone would see that they were poor. The Sages instituted that everyone should bring the meal in baskets of peeled willow branches, due to the honor of the poor.”
These rules take the feelings of the poor as deciding how the community will live out its public rituals and duties. The Mishnah goes on to apply this principle to the kind of glass used for the wine and the type of bier on which the dead were carried to the grave. It even applied to the cloth in which corpses were wrapped, and the way they were wrapped.
The wealthy would bury their dead in expensive shrouds the poor could not afford. “The problem grew to the point that relatives would sometimes abandon the corpse and run away.” Rabbi Gamliel (the grandson of the Gamaliel mentioned in Acts) “waived his dignity” by insisting he be buried in the cheapest shroud possible. After that, everyone did so.
Once they had left faces of the wealthy uncovered, but covered the faces of the poor, because their faces had been blackened by famine. “And the poor were embarrassed because they were buried in a different manner. The Sages instituted that everyone’s face should be covered, due to the honor of the poor.”
I passed on to a writer friend a Catholic teacher’s claim that you shouldn’t buy books because all you need is the Bible, the Catechism, the Liturgy of the Hours, St. Francis de Sales’s Introduction to the Devout Life, and, if you want theology, St. Thomas’s Summa. This friend writes theology, so I sent him a little-known dialogue from the 13th century.
Whatcha doing, Tom?
I’m starting to write a summary of theology.
Whatever for? Shouldn’t you be reading the Scriptures? We’ve had 12 centuries of great writing. What do you think you can add?
You’re right. What am I thinking? Let’s go get lunch.
I thought you already had lunch.
I mean second lunch.
The website’s headline ran “‘Love the Pope!’ — no ifs, and no buts.” The introduction to the republication of Pope St. Pius X’s 1912 allocution Vi ringrazio explained: “In a cry coming deep from his holy heart, the Pope summoned all the Church to understand what love for the Pope, any Pope, the one who holds the Keys, truly entails: a hard message that, exactly one century later, must be heard and obeyed by the clergy and by the lay faithful.” The republication appeared in 2012 with a picture of Pope Benedict XVI at the top, over the words Tu es Petrus.
“Love the pope!” Pius says. “When one loves a person, one tries to adhere in everything to his thoughts, to fulfill his will, to perform his wishes…. Therefore, when we love the Pope, there are no discussions regarding what he orders or demands, or up to what point obedience must go, and in what things he is to be obeyed; when we love the Pope, we do not say that he has not spoken clearly enough, almost as if he were forced to repeat to the ear of each one the will clearly expressed so many times not only in person, but with letters and other public documents.”
We do not, he continues, “place his orders in doubt, adding the facile pretext of those unwilling to obey — that it is not the Pope who commands, but those who surround him; we do not limit the field in which he might and must exercise his authority; we do not set above the authority of the Pope that of other persons, however learned, who dissent from the Pope, who, even though learned, are not holy, because whoever is holy cannot dissent from the Pope.”
The site that said “no ifs, and no buts” in 2012 seems to have forgotten it. Skimming down Rorate Caeli’s homepage, I saw references to the “petty Roman dictator” and “the Pope’s troubling teaching”; a denial that he could say what he said in the Responsa ad dubia to Traditionis Custodes; claims like “the woke Pope epitomizes liberal illiberalism”; and dismissive descriptions like “the Pope, you have probably read, is ever-smiling, merciful and tolerant. Towards some, that might be true; for others, it’s a cruel joke. His treatment of traditional Catholics, to give just one example, is a case study in liberal hypocrisy.”
All very hard to square with Pius’s words. Mostly impossible. The introduction to one article referred to “Pope Francis and his whisperers.” I think that’s what Pius forbade when he said we are not to doubt the pope’s orders and claim “that it is not the Pope who commands, but those who surround him.”
A previous papal teaching one accepts when Benedict sits on the chair of Peter, one must accept when Francis sits there.
The Church makes claims no betting man would make. For example, that every pope after Pius X would justify such submission. That implies a great deal of trust in God’s care for the Church, especially when previous papal history suggests that it might not be wise to trust so much.
The Church does lower the odds, by leaving herself a lot of room to change without violating what she said before, in two ways.
First, the Church makes most claims as narrow and precise as possible. Like that for papal infallibility, which makes the pope’s teaching infallible only in very tightly defined circumstances. Second, the levels of authority at which the Magisterium makes its claims are somewhat loose and ambiguous. Some teachings bind Catholics less than others and are more written for their time than others.
How authoritative is an allocution, for example? Is it as authoritative as Rorate Caeli thought in 2012 or as authoritative as it thinks in 2022?
“In the case of #MeToo, related common sense seems to have gone missing,” writes Mary Eberstadt in Primal Screams: How the Sexual Revolution Created Identity Politics. “Throughout the literature of #MeToo, there is a cluelessness about relations between the sexes that almost defies understanding. Many women seem not to have been taught the most basic protective lessons — like not entering a boss’s hotel room at night.”
One sees very clearly in “the literature of #MeToo” that it’s not primarily about women entering their boss’s hotel room at night. It’s about women sitting at their desks working. Women sitting in a coffee shop reading. Women walking down the street, getting their cars fixed, talking to a pastor.
One could see this just in the number of one’s Facebook friends who posted the hashtag, and the stories some of them told. Significantly, given the (inevitable, predictable, boring) culture warrior rejection of the idea, the number of one’s conservative or religious friends who posted the hashtag. They testified to a very common experience of harassment. From which they weren’t safe even in conservative and religious circles.
The problem’s not that women don’t know how to protect themselves. It’s that many creepy men, men who lust for sex or domination or both, will use whatever power they have (boss, big guy out on the street, guy with no boundaries) against women.
A few minutes before 7:00 AM seemed a little early for our local water authority to be calling, so I answered expecting bad news. I was right. The recorded message said the town down the river, from which our water authority bought a lot of its water, had had a “serious incident” and shut down. It then said it was connecting with the town up the river, so Yay! but we should conserve water, so not so Yay.
My wife and I set about conserving water because we were raised to take seriously the common good, though we were depressingly aware that many of our neighbors were likely enjoying the long hot showers we were denying ourselves. (If you know about the tragedy of the commons, you’re probably one of its victims.)
That afternoon, the water authority sent out another message saying it was connecting our water system with the next town’s, so Yay! but…we should boil our water before we drink it or buy water, so not so Yay. Even less Yay than before.
Minor inconveniences, mainly skipped or very short showers and buying jugs of drinking water. But 999 days out of 1,000 we have clean safe water, and as much of it as we want, and when something breaks, the towns around here help each other.
That’s an astonishing accomplishment of technology and civilization. We enjoy institutions that clean water for us and make sure we get it. They work together cooperatively, not competitively. It’s something to remember when you feel like ranting about whichever aspect of American society most upsets you at the moment.
The Protestantism I entered as a youth taught, “You’re a sinner, but if you really want, God will rescue you.” Good news, but being Protestantism, incomplete good news. Catholicism says the same thing, but adds friends who will help us, and that makes a great difference. The angels, of course, but especially the saints. It says of the saints, “You’re not them, but you could be them, and they will help you.”
Evangelicals sometimes criticize Catholicism as being too easy on sinners and not upset enough about sin. I don’t think that’s true, as the jokes about “Catholic guilt” suggest. I do think that Catholicism — with many exceptions, some notorious — points less to where you are than where you could be. You could be a saint. Whatever you’ve done, a saint had done it before turning to God. That saint and every other saint would be thrilled to be your close friend and powerful helper.
Looking at the saints, you may actually hate your sins more deeply, in a way that should please the Evangelical. Not because you see yourself as a worm, but because you see how your sins keep you from being someone you want to be, and someone God is eager to help you become.
Christianity’s realism about human failing attracted me when I was young, especially in contrast to the simple humanistic optimism of the world I lived in, which constantly acted in ways that proved the optimism way too optimistic. You can’t believe the liberal-college-town version of the Cleaver family, especially when you see the underside. I loved Ash Wednesday, from the first time I experienced it in my early 20s, for its bracing realism.
But I didn’t learn to see holiness in the saints for a long time. I didn’t see that clearly until I’d entered the Catholic Church. Even the high Anglicanism of which I was a part looked at them — the relatively few of them it recognized — more as models and ideals than as friends. We talked a lot about the Communion of Saints, but thought of it as strictly divided between those in Heaven and those of us here on earth. The easy intercourse of the saints with sinners was something I didn’t see till I came to the Church. And it’s made, as I say, a great difference.
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